04/24/2009 12:00AM

It looks like a race between Big 5

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NEW YORK - As Derby Week begins, horseplayers contemplating how they will bet the race are faced with a central question: Is this a year when an unusually clear-cut group of favorites are the only real contenders, or is it the frequent anything-can-happen mess that could just as easily produce something like the $9,814.80 exacta of Giacomo and Closing Argument four years ago?

When the Derby went 21 years without a winning favorite between Spectacular Bid in 1979 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, handicapping the race increasingly became an exercise in contrarianism. It seemed the proper path was to start by pitching the favorite and looking for the hidden virtues and unrealized upside in others. More recently, though, the post-time favorite has won three of the last five Derbies - Smarty Jones, Street Sense, and Big Brown.

This is no more meaningful a trend than any other short-term and somewhat random distribution of results, and it's probably more productive to assess each year's favorites on their own merits than by recent history. On those merits, I'm going chalky this year and siding with the Big Five of (in alphabetical order) Dunkirk, Friesan Fire, I Want Revenge, Pioneerof the Nile, and Quality Road. (They could be down to a Big Four by the time you read this, with Quality Road's status in doubt after a new hoof-crack was found Friday morning.)

The quintet of favorites, all 8-1 or less on most early lines with none of their prospective rivals listed at lower than 15-1, has two big things going for it: quality and consistency. This year's Derby preps were significantly faster than those of a year ago, as measured by the Beyer Speed Figures, and they also had the most multiple-prep winners of any recent season. Friesan Fire swept the trio of graded preps in Louisiana; I Want Revenge dominated both the Gotham and Wood Memorial; Pioneerof the Nile has won four straight Grade 1 or Grade 2 California preps; and Quality Road won both the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby by daylight, earning outstanding Beyers of 113 and 111, respectively.

It just doesn't feel like a year where you're supposed to go hunting for excuses and angles on the also-rans in those races, unless it's for trying to get them to fill out your trifectas and superfectas by clunking up for a minor award.

The glaring exception is Dunkirk, who at anything less than 10-1 might be the shortest-priced Derby starter who ever came into the race without a stakes victory of any kind. Some dismiss him as an unseasoned and unaccomplished pretender. On the other hand, his resume bears an uncanny resemblance to last year's Derby favorite and winner, Big Brown.

Both colts had just three starts before the Derby - impressive maiden and first-level allowance victories, followed by big-figure performances in the Florida Derby. Big Brown won that race with a Beyer of 106, while Dunkirk ran second to Quality Road and got a 108. Dunkirk will be at least twice the price that Big Brown was a year ago, but he appears to have more to beat.

Point system for Derby preps

When Dunkirk won $150,000 by finishing second in his stakes debut in the Florida Derby four weeks ago, it wasn't clear that it would be enough graded earnings to get him a Derby berth if more than 20 horses were entered. It now appears he's cleared that bar comfortably and that this year's cutoff will be only about $100,000, partly because the top tier of colts kept collecting all the big checks through their multiple victories.

Still, just because circumstances prevented a top contender from being excluded this time around doesn't mean that the graded-earnings system is fair or logical. It needs to be revised, and it's not all that complicated.

The problem is that dollars don't work as a reflection of the quality and importance of graded stakes races because some of the lesser races have bigger purses. It is indefensible that finishing second in the $750,000 Delta Jackpot, a Grade 3 race for second-tier 2-year-olds, gives you the same Derby-qualifying earnings as finishing second in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. The $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai is not twice as important as any American prep.

Replacing dollars with a point system - where races of the same grade are equal regardless of purses - solves most of the problem overnight. The Breeders' Cup uses such a system, and Churchill Downs should strongly consider a similar one.

It won't redress every injustice; there would still be some gripes about overvaluing 2-year-old form and awarding points to fillies for races where they don't have to face colts. Those concerns, however, might be addressed through some fine-tuning, once the more important switch is made from dollars to points.